By Leslie Petrovski
You’ve seen the pictures: Little penguins lined up, wings awkwardly splayed, bean bodies straining against ribbing, stripes, and, yes, intarsia. Could there be anything cuter? How could you not want to rush in with wool and needles flashing to help colonies of Eudyptula minor recover from their close encounters with oil spills down under?
Periodically, photos of penguins in pullovers go viral, with knitters and friends of knitters avidly posting, liking, pinning, and shipping thousands of wee sweaters to Australia in an effort to help the world’s smallest penguins. But what happens to these lovingly made knits?
This is the question at the heart of most charity knitting—and, indeed, most philanthropy. Once you hand over that chemo cap/preemie layette/blanket or what-have-you, where does it go? Who gets it? And, most importantly, does it do any good?
Thanks to knitters from around the globe, the Wildlife Center at Phillip Island has a huge stockpile of penguin knits.
Charity knitting has a longstanding tradition, arguably as old as the craft itself. In the United States, knitting for a cause is stitched into the very fabric of our nation. Betty Christiansen in Knitting for Peace: Make the World a Better Place One Stitch at a Time [2006, Stewart, Tabori and Chang], wrote, “Even Martha Washington knit for the war effort. An incessant knitter who often lived near the battlefront herself with her husband, she organized a war knitting group among officers’ wives.”
Today, charity knitting is a standby of knitting groups and guilds as well as crafty individuals who want to give something that says, “I made something for you.” But is a bag filled with colorful child-sized mittens and caps of use to a soup kitchen that mostly serves adult men? Can a group like the Red Scarf Project (which supplies care kits to teens who are aging out of foster care) make use of a hat knit in blue?
Kumella Aiu, a program officer with the Anschutz Family Foundation in Denver, Colorado, and a knitter, explains that philanthropy is most effective when the gift fulfills a real need. “Imagine you are homeless and you need a place to sleep and someone gives you a car,” she says. “You can sleep in it, but it isn’t what you need. So it’s important to ask.” The same holds true for handmade giving. When we hear about families displaced by natural disasters or hospital NICUs filled with tiny infants our instinct is to want to get busy with our needles and crank out (and ship off) blankets and hats. But that generosity can be misplaced. Storm survivors may be more in need of bottled water and socks than blankets and hats, and hospitals may already be overflowing with preemie hats and in need of larger-sized items. They can also cause logistical problems for agencies trying to help. If there’s no room to store bulky handknits or staff to ship things off to disaster sites, they may cause more headaches than help. “It’s really about making sure to give what’s needed,” says Aiu.
So how do you find out what’s really needed? Simple—just ask. And then be sure to listen.
Specialized organizations that are dedicated to charity knitting typically have guidelines for what they can and can’t use. Take the Red Scarf Project for example. Founded in 2005, it contributes handmade red scarves to care packages that are sent out around Valentine’s Day every year. The packages go to foster youth who are attending college who might not otherwise receive the kind of support a care package represents. When knitting or crocheting for the popular care package program, Lynn Davis, director of operations for Foster Care to Success, which manages the effort, advises stitchers to stick with crimson hues and follow the guidelines supplied on the organization’s website.
Since its inception, the Red Scarf Project has delivered more than 20,000 scarves to students in colleges and training programs across the country, but some contributions can’t be used for that specific program. “The scarves come in and they are beautiful, But not everyone follows the red idea—they take liberties.” Davis says. “ I tell people processing [the scarves], if it’s one-third red, let’s go with it. We get some that are not red at all and we’ll send those to departments of social services.” All scarves, however, get distributed, Davis says. The 1,500 or so that aren’t sent out as part of the Red Scarf Project, go to departments of social services nationwide to be distributed to youth who are in care.
For the Mother Bear Project, size matters. The organization, which gives knit or crocheted bears to children affected by HIV/AIDS in emerging nations, is run by the indefatigable Amy Berman, who felt compelled to “do something” after reading a magazine piece about infant and child rape in Africa, a problem promulgated by the belief that if a man has sex with a virgin it will cure him of AIDS. “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do something,” says Berman, who at the time was not a knitter. “I thought of what brought my kids comfort. And thought about the WWII bear pattern my mom knit for my kids. The bears are lightweight, an infant could receive one, there are no button eyes and they are made with love.”
Today, almost 100,000 bears later, Berman is the accidental executive director of a nonprofit that manages 1,000 incoming bears a month that are shipped to contacts in Africa who make sure each bear is given to a child affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic on that continent. In many cases, the children have lost one or both parents to the disease.
The bears Berman receives run the gamut of quality. She’s received everything from bears made to look like the entire cast of Sound of Music (complete with lederhosen) and The Wizard of Oz to bears made by children that are full of mistakes.
Berman, who has been to Africa six times, says she’s seen children love even the simplest bears. The most important thing for knitters and crocheters to remember, she says, is that the bears need to be shipped to Africa. “Use worsted weight yarn only,” she explains, and stuff with lightweight polyfill, not nylons or other fillers. “When people use bulky yarns you end up with this enormous bear that’s the size of a 2-year-old. [Bigger bears take up too much room in shipping containers.] They need to be 12 inches or smaller.”
In the case of the almost 20-year-old Project Linus, which has given more than 5.1 million handmade blankets to children who are ill or have experienced trauma, the organization is very open about the kinds of blankets it accepts. That said, each of Project Linus’ 300 chapters has different destinations for their blankets; some might focus on neonatal units while others target older kids.
Project Linus’ National President and Executive Director Carol Babbitt says hospitals tend to prefer non-lacy knitted and crocheted blankets for infants; teens seem to go for printed fleece rather than hand-stitched afghans. “We suggest strongly that people who are interested contact their local chapter,” she explains. “They may not have a neonatal unit, and that beautifully crocheted infant blanket won’t go anywhere. It really depends on the chapter.”
Gale Zucker, coauthor of Craft Activism: People, Ideas, and Projects from the New Community of Handmade and How You Can Join In [2011, Potter Craft] is quick to point out that she is not the be-all-and-end-all of charity knitting, but she did amass an understanding of the impulse to give knits and their value while researching the book. “My advice is, choose a cause that you feel connected to,” she says, “and think about whom you are knitting for.” When knitting for the Red Scarf Project, for example, keep in mind that “these are college students, what do they wear? They care about what they are putting on. Knit with the same level of attention that you knit for yourself or your family.”
Now About Those Penguins…
The pleas for penguin sweaters aren’t a hoax, they've been used in rehabilitation after oil spills since 1998. Although some experts think the sweaters stress out oil-impaired penguins (International Bird Rescue, for one), they nonetheless help prevent the birds from ingesting oil prior to being cleaned. Knits for Nature began distributing the pullovers in the late 1990s in the wake of several oil spills near Phillip Island. There, oil-coated birds are dressed in pullovers while in transit to the wildlife rehabilitation center on the island. (You can read more about that here and here.) Over the years, the program has brought in tens of thousands of little pullovers. While some are used in penguin rehabilitation at Philip Island, others are used for education efforts and fundraising. They're used to dress toy penguins s that are sold to raise funds for the Phillip Island Nature Parks Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
Right now, the best way to help the little penguins is to donate dollars. “The response [from knitters] has been nothing short of phenomenal and we greatly appreciate the support,” explains Phillip Island Nature Parks Communications Executive Danene Jones. “In lieu of knitting jumpers, people can help the Penguin Foundation and the little penguins through the Adopt-a-Penguin program or similar. All proceeds go back to the Penguin Foundation and assist conservation, research and the Wildlife Clinic.”
Leslie Petrovski writes regularly for Vogue Knitting, Interweave Knits, and other fibery mags. She blogs at nakeidknits.com and occasionally posts a new knitwear design on Ravelry under her nom de knit, nakeidknits.